Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Internet Police

The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online (and the Cops Followed)
© 2014 Nate Anderson
 310 pages

 Not since the steam engine has the world been so utterly transformed than by the Internet. Originally a military network, it is now infrastructure, undergirding modern life to a degree only surpassed by electricity.The internet is not just a physical construct of tubes and boxes; it is a social world unto itself, one created by its users.  Like every aspect of society, the internet has its dark alleys,  Mos Eisley-like havens of villainy. The Internet Police takes readers on a ridealong into those alleys, exploring the world of internet crime -- and internet policing.

The Internet Police opens with a chapter on the difficulties of imposing order in the first place. In the first chapter,  the author shares the joint scheme of an enterprising cyberlibertarian, Sean Hastings, and a presumably lunanical bootleg radioman turned king of his own private island, Roy Bates. The latter took over an English gun platform from WW2, declared it his personal fiefdom, and defended it with a shotgun before settling down to eake out a living taxing seagulls and the like. The former, who decided what the world needed was a secure place where servers could host the materials respectable governments banned (like online casinos and pirating), proposed renting space in the platform.  The thing was virtually inaccessible (har har), but could connect to British web infrastructure fairly easily. The adventure didn't work out terribly well, however, as Bates had an itching for respectability and a penchant for being dictatorial, neither of which allowed him to coexist with the pirate-haven for too long.

After concluding from the collapse of HavenCo that even a freeform place like the web needs law and order, Anderson reveals how the same has been enacted, despite the internet serving for both an extension of preexisting crime and the opportunity for new ones. Take sexual harrassment, for instance, which has been liberated from bars and dimly-lit parking garages. Computer mics and cameras,  some integral to the machines themselves, can be converted into the eyes and ears of tech-savvy voyeurs.  Readers may be familiar with trojan-horse style malware that uses seemingly innocuous bits of software, downloaded unsuspectingly through email or updates, which then  install and activate programs that can record keystrokes or open the machine up for remote control. Malicious use is not limited to petty lechers;  Collection agencies may use the software to obtain photographs of an unpaid-for computer in use, but their agents -- proving that all power in human hands is liable to be abused --  are recorded here using it to leer at and blackmail customers who were caught in a state of nature before the camera. Police officers using the same means succumb to the same ends.

While collections companies and perverts may invade others' computers with the primitive justification, "Who's gonna stop me?", the police are an altogether different story.  In an ideal world, they are to be accountable to the public and its law. Part of The Internet Police is a history of the myriad of ways the government has attempted to rein in the internet first through laws that allow for what is still called "wiretapping", despite the fact that it now consists more of  integrating police software with internet service providers' to scrutinize information being sent and received from a given IP address.  Governments also strong-arm telecommunications companies,  forcefully suggesting that they build in 'backdoors' to their devices and networks to allow Uncle Sam or the Crown to easily find out what a given gadget is up to.  The NSA specializes in such backdoors.  Courts as well as the police can be used to take down 'criminals', although here Anderson's review is limited to the seemingly endless attempts by music companies to prosecute consumers for file-sharing.  Unlike going after the programs themselves (Napster being the most famous, with Limewire and Kazaa other heavyweights), these campaigns rendered only a lot of bad publicity.

While there's a lot of digital crime not mentioned here (pirated video games and DRM, identity theft), The Internet Police is a fast read and one that opens up a fascinating peek into how the internet is continuing to reshape the world we live in.  Opening with the utterly bizaare story of Sealand and serving up legal thrillers in miniature, it entertains while serving as a heads up as to how vulnerable we are using unsecured systems.

New York Times article, "Spyware vs Spyware: Nate Hood's Internet Police"
Der Spiegel article (English), "Shopping for Spy Gear"
CBS is about to air a cybercrimes show that has my interest: CSI: Cyber.


  1. I have a few Internet/privacy related books coming up. The whole thing is both overblown and deeply interesting at the same time and it can be fun, if exasperating, to separate the hype from the reality.

  2. I'm planning to do a Internet miniseries, more on how it's reshaping aspects of life -- war, politics, etc. This book inspired it in part.

  3. There does seem to be a decided backlash against the gee-whiz school of the Internet saving the world ATM. Nice to get a bit of nuance back into the argument. I'll look forward to your reviews.

  4. Part of what I'm trying to do is reverse the increasingly luddite/separatist/crank attitude I've had in the last few years, where I've viewed every advance of computers and internet gadgets as either a broadway for manipulation by corporate elites/the government OR a path to depending on gadgets for things that can be done perfectly well with just mind and muscle. Part of what's lured me out of hiding is tools like Uber (it would be transportation systems that seduced me, har har), but I'm also tired of being the village crank. :-p Also, my job involves tech support, so having a hostile attitude toward gadgetry is unhealthy. (And I DID used to be a tech-head, back in high school...)

    Long story short, I'm trying to develop a more balanced appreciation of our changing wired world.


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